Christmas Trees for sale on re-purposed Italian Ices parking lot

There are five Practice Management lessons for law firms I have learned from the local Christmas Tree lot. Every year for the last 5 years, right after Thanksgiving,  the local Italian ices stand transforms itself into a Christmas Tree lot. The first time I witnessed the change I realized that in its simplicity it was a brilliant idea. It operates from the 1st day of Spring (Opening Day) through early-September. When school reopens in the Fall and the temperatures drop here outside of Philadelphia PA (Go Eagles!), customers are far and few between. By October 1st the business is closed for the season. Instead of no source of income for a half year, the owner turns the parking lot into a Christmas Tree lot for 5 weeks, thus retaining a portion of his customer base in the off season. And don’t be fooled: the sales of Christmas Trees is Big Business, as described in a recent NY Times story.

This year I happened to be passing the lot on the day the trees were delivered. It required a crew of 8 to unload the 53 foot 18-wheeler of the 800 trees (I asked) that had been ordered for this season. The site had been already prepared with a portable 6-foot chain link fence around the lot perimeter, the delivery and electrical connection of a portable heated hut for the workers, the delivery and electrical connection of a portable 8-foot marquee highway sign and the delivery of the tree wrapping machine and various other incidental signs, supplies and tools.

As can be seen in the photo above, taken on 12/25/13, they did very well this year. I counted less than 40 trees left and I don’t know if there had been additional tree deliveries after the one I had witnessed. The moral of this story: once you understand your business model and develop a successful system for that model stick with it.

So, how does this apply to operating a successful law firm business? Here are 5 lessons that I came up with:

1) Maximize the productivity process of your law firm. The Christmas Tree lot was operated with a carefully designed system. Even though it appears to be a simple business, there are many moving parts which all must work in tandem to produce a profitable outcome. Too many law firms run by rote: they continue to operate today as they had five or ten years ago. Utilizing the latest law firm productivity software, hardware innovations (tablets and cloud) and sophisticated social networking policies would improve productivity and profitability.

2) Diversify your income stream. If you can’t sell ices in the winter, sell Christmas Trees instead. If your law firm only practices certain types of law, which for economic or social reasons fall out of favor, partner up with another practice so you can cross-refer clients.

3) Location. Location. Location. The Christmas Tree lot needs to be located on a heavily traveled road. It has only a 5-week tree selling season and needs to be exposed to many eyeballs. A law firm can find a good “location” by optimizing the firm website for maximum traffic, networking at local and state bar association meetings and sponsoring local charity and sports events. If your marketing campaign is to wait for the telephone to ring you need to up your game.

4) Offer Special Services The obvious purpose of the highway sign was to promote the Christmas Tree lot. The sign announced: “Tree Coupons Here” with an email address. The real “cross-marketing” purpose, I imagine, was to obtain the email addresses of the tree customers to send them coupons and announcements for the Italian ices business in the Spring. What could your law firm offer to existing clients to sell them additional services? A free wills and estate consultation? Title insurance for real estate clients? Health Insurance review for accident clients?

5) Learn from your mistakes  There is not much similarity between selling Christmas Trees and selling Italian ices other than the seasonality of each business. After the first year of operation I’m certain that the tree lot owner had a list of mistakes he had made and improvements he envisioned for the next selling season. (For example, there was no heated hut until this past year.) Operating a law firm business requires annual reviews not only of the performance of the staff (dollars earned per hours worked) but the performance of the business itself. Which areas of the practice are not producing a profit after all costs are included? Which departments are overworked? Underutilized? Retaining the services of a law firm management consultant, not the firm’s accountant, could provide valuable insight into how the firm’s productivity could be maximized.

The takeaway for every law firm should be to operate like a Christmas Tree lot: squeeze the maximum profit from the assets already owned.

Steve Miller, JD  has provided law office productivity consulting services since 1998. He is certified in LexisNexis PCLaw®, LexisNexis Time Matters® and Amicus Attorney®.

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